A pandemic of African swine fever is devastating the pig stocks of China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Korea, South Korea, Laos, the Philippines, and Timor Leste. Furthermore, some wild boars carrying the disease have just been detected at the frontier between Mongolia and Russia (African Swine fever update, Food and Agriculture Organization, 03 October 2019). From there, it is spreading to Moldavia, Belarus and Ukraine. The EU is trying to implement prophylactic measures to stop its advance in Eastern Europe and, from there, to reach all the EU members (“Peste porcine africaine – Actualité en Europe et dans le monde, AFSCA, 11 Octobre 2019).
This pandemic is creating a very complex sanitary, food and political situation for China and the rest of the world. It is a domestic disaster, because the breakouts and the culling killed dozens of millions of Chinese pigs since December 2018, with a sharp decrease from 440 millions sows, pigs and piglets to 375 millions at the end of March 2019. Since then, the mortality rate is so intense that, at the end of August, China had already lost 38,7% of its live pig herd (“China’s pork imports surged almost 80 per cent in August to cover gap left by African swine fever », South China Morning Post, 23 Septembre 2019).
Indeed, 32,2 % of the 2018 hogs herd in China were dead in July 2019. Since August 2018, the epidemic has been flaring through 32 out of 34 of the Chinese provinces. The country suffers from a 40% to 60% decrease of its pigs stock.
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As it happens, the pig population of China represents half of the global pig population (Alistair Driver, “How Asia’s African swine fever crisis is transforming the global protein market », Pigworld, the voice of the British pig industry, October 2, 2019). So, this pandemic is in fact affecting the global meat market as well as Chinese, Asian and international politics and geopolitics (Yang Yiewie and Ryamond Zhong, “Swine fever? Trade War? China turns to strategic pork reserve”, The New York Times, Oct. 7, 2019).
Meat crisis, from local to global
The Chinese population is the biggest consumer of pork in the world. This meat is at the intersection of the Chinese culinary tradition and of the extremely rapid social and economic development of the country since the start of the 1980s. In August 2019, the prices of pork jumped by 46, 7%, making this staple food much more difficult to buy for hundreds of millions of Chinese urban middle class families (Alistair Driver, ibid).
This turns this sanitary crisis into a social and political problem. Furthermore, this spike in pork prices has other difficult consequences. In August, it drove a 10% increase for all food prices, while accelerating a 2.8% inflation. In the same dynamic, it is also driving a global increase of pork prices, while the Chinese meat demand transfers to other staples such as duck and chicken, and thus rises their prices too (Eric Ng, “China’s diners must pay more for their favourite meat or forgo pork at mid-autumn as swine fever decimates supply », South China Morning Post, 14 September 2019.
Geopolitics of the death of pigs
Thus, this situation forces the Chinese government to develop counter-measures. For example, the Chinese political authorities increase imports of pork, as well as other meats and encourage farmers to breed larger hogs breeds, in a “bigger is better” strategy. However, this happens while the trade war is putting a growing pressure on the resilient but sensitive Chinese economy. For instance, the necessity to import more pork, as well as more soybean in order to feed the generation of new, larger pigs, is opening a “breach” in the wall of the U.S. imports ban imposed to retaliate against the new U.S. tariffs (Lydia Mulvany, Mike Dorning, “U.S. Speeds Pig Slaughter Ahead of Looming China Supply Gap », Forbes, 17 September 2019.
In this article, we shall thus look at the geopolitical consequences of the African swine flu pandemic in China and Asia. We shall first focus on the way this pandemic has unintended political and geo-economic consequences on China, as it weakens the Chinese position in the trade talks with the U.S. Then, we shall see how the tsunami of pigs mortality is unveiling the geopolitical strategies of China as a land power and of the U.S. as a sea power, and how dominance is deeply linked with “protein power”.
Pigapocalypse, Now !
Towards global shortage
In 2018, the Chinese hog population was 440 million strong, for a global population of 769 million. Since the outbreak of the African swine fever the same year, China lost more than 100 million pigs in one year (“Pig population in 2018, by leading country”, Statista, 2019). This staggering amount is profoundly disturbing the protein market in China, as well as the Chinese meat consumption. The government tries to alleviate the tensions on the pork market by releasing some strategic meat reserves, but the lost quantity of pork is too high to be compensated in such a way.
As it happens, in 2019, the Chinese market will suffer a shortage of 10 million tons of pork (Keegan Elmer, “Will pork imports from Denmark and Brazil save China’s bacon after African swine fever hits supplies? », South China Morning Post, 10 Septembre, 2019).
Knowing that the global trade of pork is “only” 8 million tons, it means that global capabilities are insufficient to compensate the consequences of the pandemic. This situation is aggravated by the way it spreads all around Asia, as biosecurity systems are not developed enough (Alistair Driver, ibid).
A good pig is (very) big pig and more…
In order to mitigate the crisis, the Chinese government is supporting the creation of giant and semi-automated hog farms. It also encourages big and small producers to breed bigger pigs. If a normal pig weighs 125 kg, new breeds can reach 200 to 500 kg – i.e. equivalent to a polar bear (“China breeds giant pigs the size of polar bears as African swine fever causes pork shortage », South China Morning Post, from Bloomberg, 6 October 2019).
In the same time, the government is increasing its pork imports by more than 80% (Orange Wang, ibid). This includes U.S. pigs, despite the trade war opposing the U.S. and China.
But the 100 million dead pigs and the coming dozens of millions of living ones that are going to die in China and throughout Asia, have a much deeper consequence.
Because of the epizootic, the Chinese have to change their food habits. Thus, they are eating much more poultry, lamb and mutton, and seafood. The same is true in Vietnam, the Philippines, and elsewhere (Alan Robles, “In the Philippines, will African Swine Fever be the Grinch that stole Christmas ham? », South China Morning Post, 29 September 2019).
From food to geopolitics
This shifting protein consumption leads the Chinese fisheries to increase the quantities they catch (Tom Seamann, “Guolian sees African swine fever outbreak driving China fish consumption », Undercurrent news, Seafood business news from beneath the surface, March 20, 2019).
An important proportion of the Chinese fish production is caught in the South China Sea. Its natural resources also include its fisheries, with consequences in terms of food security. The South China Sea is one of the richest maritime ecological systems on Earth. One can find there more than 3 365 different fish species, very important reef areas, as well as giant clams (Rachaele Bale, “One the world’s biggest fisheries is on the verge of collapse”, National Geographic, August 29, 2016).
From the fishing fleet to the fishing militia
These biological resources attract the fishing fleets of more than seven nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines. In this regard, China is notably developing a system of joint operability between its coast guard fleet and its 50000 strong fishing fleet, dubbed the “fishing militia” (Megha Rajagopalan, “China trains “fishing militia” to sail into disputed waters“, Reuters, April 30, 2016).
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is strongly supporting the modernization of the fleet. This is done through heavy subsidies and the replacement of old ships by new ones, with a steel hull. In the meantime, the owners can equip their vessels with Baidu systems, the Chinese Global positioning system, which puts them in direct contact with the coast guard fleet (John Ruwitch, “Satellites and seafood: China keeps fishing fleet connected in disputed waters”, Reuters, 27 July 2014). Fishermen also receive basic military navy training, especially on manoeuvering (Ibid).
The South China Sea plays a major role as far as the Chinese food security is concerned. The depletion of the fisheries near the Chinese coast is driving the fishing fleet farther and farther in the South China Sea. This often triggers incidents between ships of different countries.
These tensions are intensifying because seafood plays a basic role in Chinese food security considering Chinese culinary tradition and economy: the Chinese people eat more than 35 kg of fish annually, while the average global consumption is of 18 kg (“The consumption of fish and fish products in the Asia-Pacific region based on household surveys”, FAO, December 2015). However, this Chinese consumption is climbing and is going to keep doing so, as long as the Chinese pork production is not back to “normal”.
Thus, the African swine flu fever is becoming a new driver of competition for the South China sea fisheries. This happens in an area already rife with tensions, while the international environment is under pressure because of the U.S. – China trade war.
Geopolitics of the Protein Power
In other words the African swine fever pandemic impacts the geopolitical competition for resources that opposes China, other Asia countries and the U.S.. From a geopolitical perspective, if we follow Mackinder and Mahan, China is today the main power of the “World Island” and its resources. The concept of “World Island” means the continuity between Eurasia, Middle Eastern and Africa, while the U.S. and other maritime powers are the dominant powers of the “outer rim” that they constitute (See Ian Morris, War! What is it good for? War and the progress of civilization, from primates to robots, 2014).
The Victory day of the living pigs
Thus, the colossal pressure exerted by the pandemic and by the shifting Chinese meat consumption forces the “Middle Kingdom” to import more meat from the western side of the “world island” and from the “outer rim”. This has an unexpected economic and political consequence. The reopening of the Chinese market to U.S. pork meat and soybeans supports the resiliency of the U.S. farm belt.
As it happens, this situation supports the U.S. Middle West farm belt. It was sorely tested by the 2018-2019 convergence of diminishing exports to China because of the Chinese trade retaliations to the U.S. trade war and of a catastrophic series of extreme weather events (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Midwest Floods, the Trade war and the Swine Flu Pandemic: The Agricultural and Food Superstorm is here!”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 2019.)
The Middle West being a bulwark of the electorate of Donald Trump, the China Swine Flu epizootic is becoming a driver of economic activity and, in the same dynamic, a political support of the conservative President. And thus it supports its foreign and trade policy (Sean Trende & David Byler, “How Trump Won: The MidWest”, Real Clear politics, January 19, 2017).
The competition of national needs
In the same time, by trying to dominate the competition with other Asian fishing fleets, China pushes other Asian countries, which also need to compensate the effects of the pandemic, into a “geopolitical grey zone” between China and the U.S. influence. Thus, the Chinese immense 1,4 billion strong need for proteins could very well push the other South China Sea countries towards the powers of the U.S. “Outer rim”. In this context, the U.S. pork exports to China become a logistical and food dimension of the U.S. “sea power”. This means that the U.S. capability to sell and transport pork to China is also a form of dominance.
Protein is power
Furthermore, the “pigapocalypse” opens a window on a very strange view of the future. It reveals how political legitimacy, public health and consumption habits are creating the set of conditions for the emergence of “protein power”. That is to say the capability to transfer proteins from its sources to populations that do not have the capability to cultivate or domesticate protein sources for themselves.
The “protein power” of the Chinese state is thus directly under threat because of the epizootic. In the same time, other countries need to access the resources necessary to the development of the protein power upon which depend their legitimacy. And the U.S. are the second most powerful protein power on Earth. Thus, the power to feed and to support the feeding of others is turning into geopolitics.
In the same dynamic, the scale of the pandemic is very worrying for neighbouring countries and it reinforces the advantage of western exporters such as the EU and the UK. It must be kept in mind that these two European powers are direct allies of the U.S.
They are also mediums of American influence on the World Island. So the Chinese need for pork meat imports reinforces the influence of the US and of the US in and around the “World Island”, while limiting the capability of China to self-sustain. This means that, nowadays, the millenia old battle between biosecurity and diseases is becoming a driver of the competition for dominance in a world of diminishing resources (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steele, The Fates of human societies, 1999).
It now remains to be seen if the disease keeps on spreading and how it could overheat the China-U.S. competition for resources and dominance.
Featured image: Wildschein, Nähe Pulverstampftor by Valentin Panzirsch [CC BY-SA 3.0]